MacKenzie State Park, formally known as MacKenzie State Recreation Area, is a 13-acre windswept grove of towering ironwood trees situated along a stretch of jagged sea cliffs found within Big Island’s volcano-prone Puna District.
It’s a rugged, isolated and serenely beautiful forest of rustling trees, outcroppings of moss-covered black rock, well-hidden lava tubes and the badly eroded ruins of an ancient Hawaiian heiau (temple), with a web of hiking trails traversing it all. The surroundings are peaceful and still, only compromised by the occasional commotion created by sets of immense rolling waves coming in off the open ocean and smashing against the cliffs. Visitors coming to the park to experience its tranquility and raw natural landscape might be surprised to learn some of the details of its backstory, too: it boasts a mysterious past dating back more than a century and a half – a history rife with ghost stories, urban legends and claims of the supernatural.
The 2018 Lower Puna Eruption severely reduces access to MacKenzie, and a few rogue lava lobes did even cover a few small portions of land at its northeastern boundary. These new patches of lava are easy to spot these days: drifts of sharp, jet-black rock spread atop and contrasting against the mossy, grayish-black and weathered-looking rock from previous flows. This covered land included a handful of short sections of Highway 137, known locally as “Red Road” which were bulldozed and graded again several months after the eruption subsided, reestablishing access to the cut-off Pohoiki Road, Isaac Hale Beach Park, and the newly formed Pohoiki Beach. To this day, the only access to these spots is via Highway 137 running right past the park, making it a great pit stop for hikers headed out to a beach day at Isaac Hale.
Hiking trails branch out from the park’s entrance heading in both directions along the cliffside, making for a roughly two-mile roundtrip trek on their longest route. The footpaths are soft and spongey underfoot from the carpet of ironwood needles perennially falling from the trees high above. The dry golden brown needles build up in immense mounds along the trail, covering the forest floor and choking out all other plant life attempting to sprout. The muffled crunching of footsteps is drowned out by the mingling tunes of the forest’s resident songbirds, whose sometimes shrill calls can be heard echoing through the trees on sunny days.
MacKenzie’s parking lot is found at the center of the park, which means hikers will have to backtrack a bit in order to complete both the shorter eastern portion and the longer western portion of its continuous coastal trail. The easiest-to-find lava tubes are located along the western portion roughly a quarter-mile from the trailhead, near the ruins of the ancient temple getting thoroughly swallowed by jungle.
Trekkers will pass by a mortared lava rock pavilion of picnic tables near the entrance gate, with a handsomely crafted cinder block and tar-shingle-roof building at the far side of the parking lot housing the dry-toilet restrooms. Potable water isn’t available at the park, so be sure to bring all needed supplies for a moderately strenuous hike that can get hot and very humid during summer months. Much of the park’s cliffside trails are remnants of the ancient King’s Highway – a broad footpath dating back to the days of old time Hawaii which circled the entire island and was the primary means of moving goods and people.
The still-green needles clinging to the ironwoods’ furry-looking branches sway in the cool, interminable onshore breeze and make a distinctive “whoosh-ing” sound, which can only be accurately described as the low rumble of a far-off freeway. It’s a constant, somehow soothing rustling that ebbs and flows with the intensity of the wind, building to the point that it drowns out all the other typical forest sounds only to recede once again into the soundscape’s background. In some parts of the world, this peculiar trait has earned the tree the moniker “whistling pine”, although it is in-fact a type of oak.
A Dangerous Beauty And A Curious, Sometimes-Spooky History
Beyond the cliffside, powerful white-tipped waves can be seen roiling the ocean below and crashing against the rocky bluffs in magnificent, earth-shaking explosions of white sea spray. The salty mist hangs over the park’s flanks, slowly dissipating and drifting uphill as it filters through the trees. It often gets caught in the bundles of ironwood needles and forms droplets, which catch errant sunbeams breaking through the canopy and making the whole surrounding forest sparkle as if imbued with diamonds.
These waves and their cascading walls of water can grow to be so big that they breach the top of the cliff, and have been known to blast away rocks and trees, sweeping them back over the edge as the water recedes again. This makes the cliffside areas at MacKenzie Park notoriously dangerous, as evidenced by the abundance of warning signs found scattered all along park’s ocean boundary cautioning visitors to keep a safe distance away from the cliffs. In the past there have been instances of hapless tourists and unlucky fishermen being swept away by this force and drowning – a fact that should be kept in mind by visitors, in addition to the park’s general isolation and lack of cell phone reception.
In addition to the very real danger of being swept out to sea, the otherwise tranquil and welcoming vibe of MacKenzie Park is also tempered by its at-times sordid history. The park was built by convicts working on the plantations of Oahu, who were shipped to eastern Big Island in the late 1850s to clear away jungle and work at removing the endless piles of lava rocks to make the terrain navigable. This arduous work out in the tropical heat – with few amenities at all for the workers – led to several deaths during construction, and it’s likely that the bodies of the deceased laborers were buried in unmarked graves within the park. Albert J. MacKenzie was the park’s namesake – a Forest Ranger and the man responsible for planting most of the ironwood saplings that have grown up into the sprawling forest of whistling trees found there today.
Some locals also claim that “nightmarchers”, referring to the ghosts of ancient Hawaiian warriors, are known to roam stretches of the King’s Highway trail at night, preceded by a thick fog, the far-off glow of torches and the jangling of the weapons and armor they carry. Several compelling ghost stories can be found online recounting sightings of nightmarchers from the park’s modern era.
How To Get There
Getting to MacKenzie Park is a bit more difficult these days owing to the 2018 Lower Puna Eruption. Access to the park via Highway 137 north, otherwise known as Red Road, was cut off during the lava flow, creating a dead-end beyond Isaac Hale Beach Park and Pohoiki Road. So, today the only way to get there is via Highway 137 south, from the tiny fishing village of Opihikao with its landmark church.
To get to Opihikao from the main lower Puna District town of Pahoa, take Highway 130 and follow signs for the village of Kalapana. A few miles past Pahoa, a left-hand turn will appear for Kamaili Road. This is a steep and winding route snaking down the hill towards the coast, which narrows into a one-way for a section near the bottom, passing by livestock pasture, homestead farms and plots of towering jungle. It is a shortcut to MacKenzie Park and to Isaac Hale Beach Park beyond it, but can be a bit precarious and demands alert and cautious driving, especially in the rain.
Staying straight at the turn for Kamaili Road takes park-goers on a longer but easier route to the end of Highway 130, past the Star of the Sea Painted Church. A left-turn lane at the bottom of the hill leads to a fork in the road – right onto Highway 137 for Uncle Robert’s Awa Bar and Farmers’ Market, and left for a roughly 8-mile drive up the highway to MacKenzie Park. This longer option passes by Kehena Black Sand Beach and the small neighborhood of Seaview Estates before reaching Opihikao.
This entire stretch of Highway 137 is devoid of places to pick up hiking snacks and drinks, except for the small grocery store called Kaimu Corner located in the village of Kalapana across the parking lot from Uncle Robert’s Market. The prices here can be a bit of a shocker, though, so budget-minded travelers are wise to pick up supplies in Pahoa at its natural food store, Seven-Eleven or at the brand new Puna Kai Shopping Center with its anchor supermarket Malama Market.